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NOSTALGIC NOSHING

Chef Tom Kearney of Sweetwater delivers classic dishes in spiffed-up tavern

for The Brooklyn Paper
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On one of the hippest streets in uber-hip Williamsburg, a bar and bistro has opened with little in the way of pretension. The place is Sweetwater, named for the space’s former resident, Sweetwater Tavern, a dive nicknamed "the smoky cave" by its punk clientele.

Like Schnack and Old Pioneer, two other restaurants Sweetwater owner Jim Mamary operates with his partners Paul Mamary and Alan Harding, Sweetwater’s decor is a bit of a set piece. Here it’s an Old World bar and grill, the kind of place where sailors and their bobbed-hair girlfriends could drink copiously and eat cheaply.

Mamary gutted the former tavern, revealing a pressed tin ceiling and walls that were hidden beneath layers of paint; laid down a gorgeous tiled floor; and lit the room with candles and milky glass sconces. On the ochre-colored walls hang sepia-toned photos of the seamen and their dates. With the bistro’s dark, moody ambience, the mixture of Sinatra and rock piped in and cozy, burgundy leather booths, the setting invites lingering. So does the small backyard area where 25 diners can sit at candle lit, cloth-covered tables and pretend they’re relaxing in a country inn, not an eatery just beyond the restless streets of Williamsburg.

Chef Tom Kearney, formerly of Blue Hill and Jean-Georges in Manhattan, offers a menu of carefully prepared, bistro-style dishes that satisfy an urge for an excellent burger as well as for more innovative, French-influenced fare.

He begins by offering diners a small paper bag filled with straight-from-the-oven, deliciously oily strips of lightly-salted focaccia. The house-baked bread pairs well with either a bottle of lowbrow Pabst Blue Ribbon or a glass of decent pinot grigio from the well-chosen wine list. (Nothing on the selection of international bottles tops $32, with some unusual choices from vineyards in South Africa, France and California in the $17-$23 range.)

Kearney puts an upscale spin on the fish cake, offering it as a mostly codfish, ample-sized, loosely knit disc. He serves the crust-edged patty with a side of sweet corn relish dotted with sautéed red pepper and a little ramekin of house-made tartar sauce.

I loved the idea of string bean salad with buttermilk dressing and goat cheese fritters, and I admired the earthy taste of the beans. But the dressing needed salt and the leaves of bib lettuce that the beans were tossed with were slightly gritty. "Fritters" are a more appealing way of saying fried cheese balls, yet that is what they are: delicious, crisp, gooey and fluffy. I could pass on the salad and eat 40 of them.

Do not miss the succulent salmon no matter how tired you are of this fish. The large filet with its brittle, well-seasoned skin, was remarkably moist and perfumed from the grill. Beside it sat a small mound of warm red bliss potatoes, capers and pickled onion tossed with tart mustard dressing that complemented the sweet richness of the fish. Perfection.

I was just as impressed with a nicely charred hanger steak and the deep, winy garlic jus that moistened it. Admirably crisp onion rings topped the steak and soaked up the meaty juices. A light meal it’s not, but if you’re looking for a red meat fix, this is the way to go.

The desserts - simple creations such as apple crumble, puddings and chocolate cake - are the kind of homey sweets diners crave. There’s a creamy, mouth-puckering lemon tart on a crisp graham cracker crust that is everything that tart should be. Rich butterscotch pudding with a puff of freshly whipped cream had the mellow flavor of dark brown sugar and cream.

Yes, Sweetwater attracts a hipster clientele; tiny pigtails and tattoos on the female - as well as male - patrons are commonplace.

But, unlike so many of the restaurant’s neighbors in the area that offer a scene without good food to match, Sweetwater gives diners a relaxed atmosphere to kick back in and a meal that really delivers.

 

Sweetwater Bar & Grill (105 North Sixth St. between Berry Street and Wythe Avenue in Williamsburg) accepts cash only. Entrees: $8-$15. The restaurant serves dinner daily and brunch on Sundays from noon to 5 pm. For more information call (718) 963-0608.

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